No Time for Tinsel
Susan McNeill Roberts
“Not again!” Cassie Simmons groaned as an all too familiar rustle and swish from the front part of the house indicated her daughter had struck once more. What Alice's personal vendetta was against this particular Christmas tree Cassie could not determine. Most of her autistic daughter's eighteen years had been spent in this house, and for all those years the family’s holiday tree was located in the same position, in front of the large living room window of their old two-story Craftsman.
The window overlooked a gravel-topped circular driveway that connected their home to the winding road of their small subdivision in Falling Creek Community. Balanced by a lighted wreath in a complementary window gracing their entry hallway and topped by brass candles in the upstairs windows facing the street, the house glowed through the trees like a setting from a Norman Rockwell Christmas card. Minus the snow, of course, it seldom snowed in the foothills of South Carolina and then usually not until late January or February. Now to complete the cozy picture both inside and out the tree would have to be righted yet again.
It really was amazing, Cassie reflected as she returned the long-suffering tree to its upright position, how few ornaments and lights become disarranged in this process. This makes six – no, seven - times the poor thing’s been toppled this year.
She sighed and shrugged. This could not go on.
“Scott!” Her best schoolteacher voice penetrated an all too brief pause in frenetic drumming overhead. Whatever was on the middle school band’s current play list, it certainly was not Silent Night.
Drumming sons aside, life with Alice was never dull. In fact, it sometimes seemed no sooner had Cassie dealt with the latest challenging behavior (such a good word challenging, so much nicer than say, destructive or downright disastrous) than hey-presto off she would go in yet another unsettling direction. Over the years their house evolved into a minor fortress – wooden or brass lamps, for example, instead of fragile ceramic ones; deadbolt locks on exterior doors; keyed locks on interior doors. Alice had long ago found ways to breach those convenient push button spring locks.
Cassie reaffixed her daughter's Christmas ornament from last year, a picture of Alice’s stocky body dressed in a pink tightrope walker's costume with a pink ribbon crowning her short, dark hair. That ribbon had not lasted long. Someone must have snapped the picture before the start of Wood Community Developmental School's Spring Fest: someone who knew Alice well. The photo was glued inside a glitter-covered lid from a Jif peanut butter jar. Wise in the ways of the school's special population, each year's Christmas project came with a sturdy pipe cleaner for a hanger instead of the more traditional flimsy wire hook.
This particular student was sitting in her chair by the living room fireplace, gently rocking and looking rather too pleased with herself for Cassie's complete peace of mind. Scott, the youngest of Cassie's three children and a seventh grader at Falling Creek Middle School, clattered downstairs. He stopped at the wide opening into their living room. Crooked wire frame glasses sat atop his tousled blond hair. Scott’s practiced eyes, blue-gray like his mother’s, calculated the lingering results of all too familiar chaos.
“What is her problem? Does she realize Josh is going to be working tonight or did something happen at school today?”
"If it did they were kind enough not to let me know. At least she returned with all her clothing intact, so it couldn’t have been too bad. Get the stepladder, will you, Scott? We'll either have to wire the tree in place or continue this nonsense, and I'm not sure how many more soakings our carpet can take."
Cassie gathered thin wire and a pair of tough scissors from a drawer of the secretary. How fortunate she neglected to remove the hooks over the window, standard holiday precautions from Alice’s youth.
"There," she said minutes later, "that should make it relatively impregnable." Alice had never made an all-out assault on a Christmas tree yet, although many a Halloween pumpkin nestled snugly against a sheaf of cornstalks on their wide front porch met with a tragic fate in what was now referred to as the Simmons Annual Pumpkin Roll.
“Cassie, what’s up, girl? Santa’s not due ‘til next week. Time
ta get a move on if you wanna make choir practice.” The amused voice of her stalwart friend broke into Cassie’s reverie.
Ministering angels come in many forms. Nancy Decatur was Cassie’s own age of forty-six but from a far different background. Years of growing up in rural West Virginia combined with a rough and tumble family history produced a broad range of experiences without damaging Nancy’s dry but vivid sense of humor. Her chosen profession involved handicapped populations: her down-to-earth approach to life was always a welcome relief.
Alice glowered at Nancy. As Cassie frequently said, Alice was retarded: she was not stupid. If Alice made a mess while Nancy was there, Alice would be the one cleaning it up.
"The holly and the ivy, when they are both full grown, out of
all the trees that are in the wood, the holly wears the crown…"
Cassie indulged in a detour through Main Street’s Victorian decorations in downtown Woods Ford. Old fashioned street lamps ablaze with white lights were festooned with greenery and ribbons while shop windows held life-sized vignettes of Christmas through the ages. Arriving at the impressive red brick church, she found a space in its packed parking lot. Grabbing her music folder, she slid out of the car and into the chilly night.
“Hey guys, watch where you’re going!”
As Cassie approached the fellowship hall, she collided with several of her fifth grade students hurtling through its side door.
“Gosh, we’re sorry, Miz. Simmons,” Kenny Lorens gasped as he followed his best friends into the parking lot.
The three scouts were lugging heaping trash bags towards the dumpster. From the clinkings and rustlings within their black plastic depths, the evening’s activities must already be in full swing. The scouts arrived right after school today to finish wrapping presents donated for needy area families. These were now under the large tree in the fellowship hall among gifts for the church staff. Flushed with excitement, the three eager lads returned to duty even before Cassie hung up her coat and headed towards the choir room.
St. Paul Methodist Church had a full Wednesday night program. Both Boy Scout and Cub Scout troops met there as well as a number of church committees. Bell ringers and choir groups rounded out the full schedule. Due to the large percentage of church members who came on Wednesday evenings, adult Sunday school classes alternated producing tasty but economical meals in the spacious kitchen at one end of the long fellowship hall.
Of course, there was no way she could pass through the chattering throng without pausing to speak to several friends and neighbors.
"Cassie, how is your dad doing today?" William Harris, their family doctor, stopped her with a brief inquiry about her father.
“I want you to keep a close eye on that cold of his. We don’t want another bout of bronchitis like we had last spring.”
Cassie grinned. Bill Harris was one of her favorite people.
“He’s doing much better. He even drove into town today for his regular senior happy meal at MacDonalds.”
That produced a grunt – as expected.
“All that way for a free orange drink! Sometimes he’s simply too Scottish for his own good.” But Bill Harris held his fire. They both knew how much her father missed his wife. He simply had too much time on his hands.
Cassie was determined this Christmas was going to be perfect. No one in her family felt like celebrating last year so soon after her mother’s passing. Everything was going to be just right this time, or as right as Cassie could possibly make it.
Cassie had hoped to get to choir practice early enough to check the banks of poinsettias that flanked the altar rail but there hadn't been time, what with the mess at home and friendly folks at church. She would have to do any necessary watering after practice. Ever since a number of the lovely flowers drooped on Christmas Eve three years ago, Cassie appointed herself chief plant watcher.
Slipping into position as the large choir began warming up, she opened her gray music binder and was able to acquit herself tolerably well when they used the choir room’s piano to fine tune some of the trickier harmonies. Then they proceeded through a side door into the large sanctuary. The singers waited in a double line in the wide center aisle while the choirmaster took his position at the impressive pipe organ. No mere piano arrangements would suffice for worship service during this auspicious season. They processed magnificently down the aisle and up to their places to Oh Come, All Ye Faithful.
Usually Cassie preferred this area on Sunday mornings. St. Paul’s intricate stained glass windows came alive as the sun streaked across the eastern sky, multicolored lights dancing upon warm oak woodwork and red carpeted floor. But the magic of the candlelight service, hundreds of candles glowing within the dim recesses of the nave and transept, always made her catch her breath.
As expected, practice ran late that evening: Cassie still took time to check the flowers. Accelerating as she turned out of the choir room and into the deserted hallway, she narrowly missed colliding with Ivan Kormanski as he backed out of the women’s rest room, mop in hand.
“Whoops, sorry, Ivan. I wasn’t looking where I was going.”
“Is all right, Cassie. You want I should check the flowers tonight?”
“Goodness, no. You do too much around here as it is. I’ll bet you still have all the trash cans to empty.”
“Yust in this building. Jeremiah is doink all the rest. Those scouts wrap plenty presents. Leave plenty mess.”
“Greg must not have been there.” Little got by their regular scoutmaster.
“Naw, he had to go back to flower shop. Big business. I do fine, no problem!” His weathered face flushed with pride over his mastery of this latest American idiom.
“Cassie, you sure it okay for us to come Christmas Day for dinner? Much trouble for you, three extra people.”
“I wouldn’t have it any other way. We’re all looking forward to your visit. We’ll see you about noon, okay?”
Although custodial duties were generally carried out by Jeremiah Gooding, the longtime sexton of St. Paul, Ivan and his family always seemed to be volunteering as well. Adopted as Eastern European refugees, Ivan and his twenty-year old son Stefan had become valued employees at a local manufacturing plant. Daria, Ivan's wife, while speaking little English, worked in a variety of small jobs at the church. Her care worn face lit up whenever she assisted in the church nursery. Daria loved children. Her daughter's family had left their war-torn country also but had been sent to a sponsoring church in Germany.
Now the members of St. Paul were trying to raise sufficient money to bring the couple with their two small children to join the rest of the Kormanski family in Woods Ford. The church threw itself with typical enthusiasm into the project. Several local firms promised matching funds during the holiday season. All the money raised by the church was placed in a five-gallon pickle jar located in a prominent position in front of the pulpit. By the time all matching pledges were collected, funds would be tripled.
Each church group and Sunday School class conducted special events for the cause. Even the youngest members of the congregation clamored to be held up by their parents so they could place their nickels and dimes into the jar themselves. The Kormanski family had won the hearts of the entire congregation by their hard work and sincere gratitude.
Cassie filled a large watering can stored in a cluttered utility closet under the balcony stairs. Starting at the western side of the sanctuary, she began working her way around the double row of deep red flowers, each encased within its own green foil liner. She did not add much water even though a long strip of plastic had been placed the length of the communion rail as a precaution against water spots on the splendid oak kneeling bench.
Half way through, her probing fingers came across something cold and round. A coin had fallen into one of the pots on the back row. She picked it up and stood so she could add the coin to the jar.
Which was not there.
This shouldn’t be a surprise, a startled Cassie reasoned to herself. It had been hard to access the jar on its tall pedestal ever since Christmas decorating had been completed. Placing the coin within her slacks’ pocket, she decided to look for Mr. Gooding once she finished her task. He and the Reverend Jonathan Edwards were responsible for the jar. They could add the missing contribution at their leisure.
By the time Cassie completed her task, it was quite late. The well-lit parking lot was deserted except for her station wagon and Mr. Gooding's classic Lincoln Continental. He came around the corner just then, his hands full of trash bags from the new Sunday School building. Not wanting to delay him further, Cassie waved goodbye and hastened on her way. She would return the offering on Sunday. It was past time for her to return home.
Cassie’s Friday morning proceeded as smoothly as was possible the last day before the holiday break. Over the years, she and her two teammates developed a master plan made simpler by their interconnecting rooms. Rose Anthony had the largest room: at this moment, A Muppet Christmas Carol was entertaining the majority of their students. Wanda Marcus, at the other end of the team’s complex of classrooms, had a fair amount of floor space: those students who did not wish to watch the video were playing board games or chatting in small groups.
Cassie’s smaller room was wedged between the two but boasted a working sink as well as a commodious storage closet. Cassie, therefore, was in charge of cookie decorations and the inevitable clean up. On a round table near the sink homemade sugar cookies waited alongside a variety of frostings, sprinkles and small candies. As students had brought their favorite soda or fruit drink, at the end of the decorating session each small group would move on to one of the other two rooms.
This year, several students engaged in heated chess games in the far corner of her room. Cassie was the fifth grade’s academically gifted teacher: chess was part of her deductive thinking teaching strategy. She was picky about chess etiquette, however. It was never checkmate until Cassie declared it was checkmate.
She walked over to observe the one remaining competition. Kenny Lorens and Geoff Sandidge were hunched over the table while their buddy Barry Sterns peered intently from the sidelines. These three boys were the brightest in an exceptionally bright class. Too bright for their own good, Wanda Marcus had muttered on more than one occasion: she was the teacher who guided and graded their convoluted science projects. They reminded Cassie of her own son Scott as far as academics were concerned; however, they were several years younger and considerably more mischievous.
Cassie and her teammates were lenient with the trio (dubbed the Three Horsemen of the Apocalypse) as Geoff was under a great deal of strain. His father, a fighter pilot stationed at the nearby Air Force base, was overseas on assignment. His tour of duty had five more months to run. Geoff and his father had a close relationship, sharing interests that ranged from chess to racquetball. They were great collectors who studied all aspects of any area’s culture to which Geoff’s father was assigned. Major Sandidge believed this softened the separation: Cassie had a sneaking suspicion Geoff regarded it in a more superstitious light. He would never speak the name of the country, for example.
A number of students at Parkside Elementary School had family members deployed overseas. The entire staff focused on maintaining a consistent environment: they knew the upcoming Christmas break would be a particularly stressful holiday.
Cookie decorating and subsequent cleanup at last out of the way, Cassie returned to view the progress of the game. Geoff's keen blue eyes were riveted on Kenny's left hand. It was hovering between his remaining knight and bishop. Kenny was adept in using his knights with devastating effectiveness. Usually the two were evenly matched: today it was obvious Kenny held the upper hand. His unkempt mop of hair, an indeterminate color Cassie had never been able to classify, seemed to crackle with the tension of the moment. Now it was Geoff’s move.
“Would he, would he capture Kenny’s knight? Such an obvious move it seemed, especially since knights were Kenny’s weapons of choice, but such a fatal one.”
Cassie willed herself to walk back to the sink. Sometimes it was hard not to intervene.
Of course, Barry was also a powerful player. The craftiest of the three, Barry took particular delight in distracting his opponents with small talk and meaningless moves, his hawk-like nose twitching and his hazel eyes dreamy, while his main pieces waited in the wings for a particular space to open, allowing one of them to sweep across the length of the board and capture his luckless opponent's queen or rook.
It was a foregone conclusion Cassie’s spring chess tournament would come down to one of these three. For all their mischief and intelligence, the trio was scrupulously honest, as were the vast majority of their team's seventy-eight students. It was a real pleasure not to have a budding major criminal this year.
Barry’s amused snort caught her attention. Geoff’s dark head was bent in defeat. That knight had been just too tempting. Cassie looked across the length of the room. Sharp eyesight was a prerequisite for survival in the classroom, as was acute hearing.
“Checkmate,” she intoned as the boys gathered up the chess set and returned it to the storage closet.
Cassie gave her classroom a final check. The class pets had been claimed for the holidays so she would not have to return to school until after the New Year. The two guinea pigs (Ethel and Miss Piggy) left in their traveling cages yesterday. The classroom seemed strangely empty without their comfortable chucklings. Students always begged to care for the animals over vacations: Cassie had never had a problem arise from any home visits.
Geoff's mother was coming by this afternoon to pick up Iggie the iguana's palatial wooden cage complete with climbing branch. One of the custodians would be there to help her load it into the back of their large van. Cassie made a mental note to remind her not to forget the scoutmaster's present. The large gift had somehow been forgotten at Kenny's home Wednesday night and currently resided on the now depleted shelf in Cassie's storage closet/computer room where the traveling cages were kept.
That left only Percy, the chameleon. He was traveling, complete with perch, in one of two large glass containers originally set aside for local green snakes. The reptiles didn't do well in a classroom environment, however, so Cassie kept their empty containers for moments like this. Percy was due to be chauffeured in great style by a palpitating Mrs. Echols who had only given in to her granddaughter's plaintive requests after being reassured the reptile would neither shed, nor would he escape.
Cassie grinned to herself. While Percy might not escape (he could hardly unscrew the screened lid by himself), she was less sanguine about the crickets in the smaller jar that accompanied him. Percy had to eat as well, right? Christmas might be more lively than originally anticipated in the Echols's home.
Hearing the strains of the final Muppet Christmas song, Cassie walked over to Wanda Marcus's room to alert her of the students’ imminent return. Geoff's mother arrived before the dismissal bell. She had to pick up his younger sister who attended primary school just down the road from Parkside. Cassie finished giving out report cards and watched both iguana and large present vacate the area. Kenny and Barry tagged along to assist with unloading the cage at the Sandidge home.
Their kindly custodian returned to carry out Percy, astutely judging Mrs. Echols might drop the jar should the chameleon make any sudden moves. The older lady was already giving dubious glances around the room, trying in vain to determine where that muted chirping originated. The offending container had been placed at the bottom of her granddaughter's backpack. Valerie should be wearing her jacket as it was turning cold outside, but Cassie could well understand how the garment was more useful stuffed in the top of her pack.
The last bell rang. The final load of students departed. The echoes of their excitement faded in the air. Rose Anthony hurried away with the children. Wanda Marcus shrugged on her coat, gave Cassie her Christmas hug and disappeared down the side hall. Cassie heard Wanda's infectious giggle. She must have bumped into someone at the door. Heavy footsteps approached. Cassie looked up in surprise as a burly police officer stepped into her classroom.
“Mrs. Simmons, I need a few minutes of your time.”
“Is anything wrong, Officer?” Cassie could not believe the trite words came out of her mouth. It was obvious her brain was much too clogged with Christmas planning.
Jerry West sighed. Sure would be nice to be greeted once in a while with a welcoming smile and an outstretched hand. He gave himself a little mental shake. The holidays must be getting to him. It was always busier at this time of year, and good will towards men was not the guiding rule of the day in his job at any season.
“A few questions about your time at St. Paul Church last Wednesday night.” He noted how her face relaxed. Maybe this trip wouldn't be wasted after all.
“Sure, please sit down. Would you like a sugar cookie?” Cassie was courteous and curious. What on earth could be going on?
Jerry West declined the sugar cookie with regret. His wife had been baking up a storm: his uniform was beginning to feel more than a little snug. He'd better get on with this.
He wedged himself with difficulty into one of the student chairs at the round table as Cassie took another. She turned an interested face toward him; her direct blue-grey eyes looked into his. Kind of attractive, he reflected, although curly auburn hair and an upturned, freckled nose were not to his particular taste. His wife's dark eyes and glowing complexion rose in his mind. This was a wonderful time for his family. That brought him back to the task at hand.
“You were one of the last to leave St. Paul on Wednesday night?”
“Yes, probably the very last except for Jeremiah Gooding. At least no one else was in the parking lot, and I didn't encounter anyone on my way through the building.”
“Why’d you stay so late?” - although Sgt. West knew the answer to that one.
“I was checking to make sure all the poinsettias were watered. Some of them dry out faster than others. It had been a long choir rehearsal and,” she grinned, “there are an awful lot of poinsettias.”
Nice lady, he thought, but I bet she can be pretty tough when she needs to be.
“So you saw Mr. Gooding? What time was that?”
“Probably just before ten. He was carrying a load of trash bags from the Sunday School wing. Thursday is trash day, you know.”
Don't I ever. By the time we’d been called, everything was clean as a whistle. Did they have to be so careful? Were they always?
“Did you see anybody out of the ordinary in the sanctuary or just in the building in general?”
“Not a soul who didn't have a good reason to be there. No strangers that I recall. Why? Was there vandalism or is something missing? Just what exactly is going on here?”
Sgt. West noted the sound of a toe tapping under the round table.
“Somethin’s missin’,” he answered. “I’ve seen all those plants. Must’ve taken some time, what with going back and forth gettin’ more water. Did anybody come through the sanctuary?”
“I suppose you mean after the choir members left?” Cassie was not liking where this conversation was headed, not one little bit.
“Yeah. The way I figure it, just choir members leave that way. Other meetin’s are in the new building ‘cept for the scouts who meet in the basement. But they don't leave through the sanctuary.”
“No, they go up the back way and through the new building. We're still having choir practice when they dismiss, so they try to avoid disturbing us.”
“So, did you see anybody else in the area at any time that night?”
“Only Ivan Kormanski, right after rehearsal. He was by the side door that leads to the choir room and the hall bathroom. He does a lot of odd jobs on Wednesdays to help Mr. Gooding out. Mr. Gooding is no spring chicken, you know. His wife's illness is taking up more and more of his time. He's been with St. Paul almost forty years now.”
“But you didn't see Mr. Kormanski's car?”
“Truck, and, no, I didn't. But then I wouldn't expect to. He usually walks back and forth to church. They all do.”
“They live a right good ways off, don't they? Must be ten blocks or so.”
“They're used to it. They were farmers before they had to leave their own country. I believe their only mechanized vehicle was an old, unreliable tractor, and they considered that a luxury. We can't get them to drive to church even when it's pouring down rain. Believe me, it's not as though we haven't tried.”
“You know 'em well?”
“Ivan and Stefan come out to the house to cut firewood. Our lot is heavily wooded, and their small apartment is heated with a wood stove. Between wind storms and just natural attrition, we frequently need a hand with fallen trees. I provide the trees; they provide the labor; and we split the wood. They've also been helpful with other types of major projects. The only problem is that they won't take any money, so we have to barter. When they helped with some repairs to the garage last year, they took my son Scott's old computer in trade. Stefan is fascinated with electronics. We hope once his English is good enough we can enroll him at Wood County Technical College.”
Jerry West sighed. One perfectly good lead shot down.
Cassie's eyes narrowed and her temper began to rise. What the heck was going on anyway? Clasping her hands in front of her (a sure sign her patience was growing thin), she proceeded with deceptive calm.
“It's possible I could be of more help if you would be more specific. Just what is it that's missing?”
“No one can find the money jar that was near the altar. It was missin’ when Mr. Gooding went in to vacuum the sanctuary on Thursday afternoon.”
Daria's kind face rose before Cassie's startled eyes. She had been counting on her daughter's family joining them in the spring. How hurt she would be to think a member of the congregation committed this malicious act. But did it necessarily have to be a member?
“When was the last time it was seen?” she asked, rapidly reviewing her own movements through the sanctuary that evening.
“It was there durin’ the children's and youth choir practices that afternoon: several donations were made at that time. The choir directors had to put the money in the jar since it was awkward behind all those flowers. After that, nobody’s sure about anythin’.”
“Couldn't it have been taken once everyone adjourned to their own specific areas? I know the outer doors are usually locked except for the one that leads into the fellowship hall: someone is always there since the Sunday School committee meets in that particular area on Wednesdays.”
“They say nobody unusual passed through, ‘specially nobody carryin’ a jar that size. Even if somebody snuck in and emptied the jar into a large bag, the jar is gone too. For all we know, it was there all night and early into the next day. You would think,” he sighed, “it’d be noticed durin’ adult choir practice, but no one we’ve spoken to can remember.”
“I'm afraid I can do no better than they. I process about midway down the line on the right side of the aisle and the jar was located on the left. Did you try asking the lead sopranos? What with colds and flu this time of year, I don’t know who was in front. Surely the first one on the left would have been able to see the pulpit clearly.”
“Well, it was the minister's wife. She was keepin’ her eyes either on her music or on the aisle. It's really weird,” he shook his head, “how nobody noticed.”
“What does Ivan say? He was in the side hall outside the choir room.”
“He says he never went in that night. Once all the scouts left he went into the basement for a final security check down there. Then he went into the new Sunday School building to do the same. He spoke with Jeremiah Gooding to see if there was anything’ else and then walked home. As far as we know, the jar was there when Mr. Gooding did his final door check. He says he didn't notice anythin’ out of the ordinary.”
“Well,” Cassie stated, “you can forget about that line of inquiry right now. The jar was not in the sanctuary when I watered the flowers. I noticed specifically but didn't think anything about it. I just assumed it had been moved to a safer location.”
“Hey,” the detective said as he rose to go, “who better to get rid of somethin’ that bulky than a custodian? Ivan Kormanski wouldn't take it since that would hurt his family. But someone with mountin’ medical bills who was possibly being edged out of his job? I'm sorry, Miz. Simmons: I'm afraid it’s way too possible.”
The loss of a pickle jar full of money somehow doesn't seem like a big deal in itself, Cassie reflected as she hung up the telephone in the small teacher's lounge. But, of course, it wasn't that simple at all. It was the crime against the human spirit that rankled so deeply, the stealing of the goodwill and high hopes of three kind people who had suffered more than most folk in Woods Ford could even begin to imagine.
When St. Paul's subdued secretary answered her quick call, Cassie determined that the minister’s wife was with Daria, Ivan and Stefan were at work and the church was under lock down while yet another search was conducted. The Reverend Jonathan was immersed in an emergency board meeting.
Since there was nothing more to be done at the moment, Cassie retrieved her coat and purse from the barren storage closet. She hastened toward the main building and the teachers' parking lot. Once again, she was the last car to leave. She could tell by the alacrity with which the gate was closed and padlocked behind her that, in the custodian's opinion, it was high time.
Saturday morning in the old Craftsman was filled with more than the usual pre-holiday hustle and bustle. Set aside as a time for family chores, a slower pace that kept Alice comfortable, this morning they were to try once again for a family portrait. This time the photographer was coming to their home. They had tried it the conventional way several weeks before but with a noticeable lack of success.
Alice was less than cooperative. Cassie should have known better. Alice had a school picture taken every year but this was done within her school with plenty of helpers on hand should times prove challenging. The photographer's studio was unfamiliar territory, a barren room with lots of odd looking equipment scattered around. Expensive equipment, Cassie realized as she saw her unhappy daughter casting a speculative eye around the space. Before Alice could drive home her disapproval by slinging a light or two around (perhaps even the camera and tripod), Cassie canceled the session.
The photographer was a kind soul. It was obvious he had experience with recalcitrant subjects. Even before his ears stopped ringing (the studio would have made a great echo chamber), he found a window of opportunity in his busy holiday schedule for a home session. It had to be early, however, as he had a small wedding to photograph later in the day. This suited Josh since Saturday afternoon would probably see the last of the tree buying rush.
So now their family had assembled, smartly if casually attired. This time the grumbling came not from Alice's direction but from Cassie's father, decked out in starched white shirt, bolo tie and dark blue cardigan. Ever since his retirement after 31 years of service as a naval officer, getting him into even remotely formal garb was a major endeavor.
Wiser by now, Cassie elicited Nancy Decatur's help to deal with the more mutinous of her crew. They were grouped around Alice's chair by the fireplace. A red poinsettia on the lamp table contrasted nicely against the books and family memorabilia on the shelves behind them. Alice was in a good mood. She had been allowed to maintain her grip on several small bars of soap, her favored objects of the moment. Also, the pant legs on her new outfit were allowed to remain pushed up close to her knees.
Apparently, miracles of photo editing could now be achieved with a mere flick or two of the computer mouse. With Nancy's help and a few pithy remarks out of the side of Cassie's frozen smile, a satisfactory shot was eventually obtained. The boys returned the equipment to the photographer's van; Cassie's father retreated across the street to his own abode; Alice was redressed in more durable clothes; and Cassie retired to the sanctity of her own room with a strong cup of tea and a raging headache.
Later, when Cassie was changing into clothes suitable for holiday baking, her hand encountered a coin tucked deep within her slacks’ pocket. She sat down on the bed: the events of the last few days flooded into her mind. She turned the coin over and over in her hand, staring at it as though it were a talisman, a way to help her solve the puzzle. She turned on her bedside lamp and studied it under the gleam. Perhaps this was the key after all.
Cassie walked to her bedroom door and called for Scott. The magic of the internet would come in handy right now. Leaving him to his assigned task, she went down to her waiting kitchen. The delicious aroma of spiced cider drew her toward the simmering brew. Pouring herself a mugful, she began assembling the ingredients for her special Christmas bread. It looked as though today might be even busier than originally planned.
By the time Cassie and her children were ready to leave for Sunday morning church, Cassie felt she had already put in a full day. Scott's computer expertise proved most enlightening and, if she was correct, the problem of the vanishing jar would be soon solved. And high time, too.
While a brief footnote in Friday's newspaper's police reports contained a barebones account of the problem, an enterprising reporter (no doubt with thoughts of Pulitzer prize sugarplums dancing in his holiday head) turned it into a front-page Sunday tearjerker complete with color picture featuring a tremulous Daria standing next to the empty pedestal upon which the jar had resided.
Cursing all reporters in general and herself in particular for wishing to wait until she could confirm her own suspicions in person, Cassie banged around the kitchen in a solitary snit that morning. Even Alice knew when it was best not to add complications to an already contentious situation and remained compliant while the normal Sunday morning hubbub was underway.
Since Josh was driving his grandfather's car to church that morning, the three siblings were able to make an early escape. They would stop on their way to deliver three of the Christmas 'twist' tree breads to be left in the church office for the Reverend Edwards, Jeremiah Gooding, and the Kormanski’s. As Scott was carrying out the last of the colorful Christmas boxes in which the iced bread was housed, he regarded his mother solemnly.
“It’s not much to go on, you know. Someone else might have dropped it after all.”
“I know. I was up half the night thinking about it, turning over other possibilities in my mind, but I just couldn’t come up with any that fit the events as we know them. If I’m right, today is the most logical time for something to happen. And logic does play a big part in this,” she gave a grim smile, “even if it was spur-of-the- moment logic.”
Scott glanced up at the clock. “Do you have everything in the crockpot you need for Brunswick stew? We’ll save you a bowl if you’re delayed after church.”
Cassie hung up her apron and headed for her purse and coat in the hall closet.
“Let’s hope I am. Now scoot or we’re both going to be late!”
Before Cassie headed off to her own Sunday School class, she located Jeremiah Gooding and Ivan Kormanski standing gloomily together in the deserted fellowship hall. One glance around the room reassured Cassie she was in time. The two men brightened after she had a brief word with them. While not understanding the reason behind her request, they were happy to have something positive to do. They set about following her instructions with an added spring to their steps. This was the season of hope after all.
* * *
It wasn't until the offertory hymn began that Cassie had a moment to glance around the sanctuary. Usually the Sunday service right before Christmas was less well attended, since everyone would be back for the traditional Christmas Eve candlelight one. Today, however, the large church was packed. The congregation came to show their concern for the Kormanski family’s plight. Daria was sitting in the third row with Ivan and Stephan and seemed much better. She had responded with gratitude to the many kind words her family received upon entering the sanctuary.
Cassie scanned the row, expecting to see Josh and Scott in their usual place. It took her a while to locate them since they had opted to sit in the balcony. She caught Scott's eye. He nodded his head to one side. Ah yes, no wonder they chose to sit up there. Everything and everyone was in place as they should be.
Cassie's neighbor gave her a firm nudge with her elbow, returning the alto to more immediate concerns. Belle Frazier's rich contralto spread through the sanctuary in her much-anticipated solo, The Jesus Gift.
“Shall I bring him silver; shall I bring him gold? Shall I bring him diamonds, white hot, stone cold?”
As the full choir joined in, Cassie's spirits soared with the music. She always enjoyed a challenge. Extracting everyone from this brouhaha with minimum damage was her ultimate goal. She also had a minor score to settle. This situation was not resolved yet.
Mrs. Lorens turned as Cassie addressed her. She was older than most parents of Cassie's current students. A comfortable woman with a warm smile and understanding eyes, Cassie counted her as one of her favorite parents as well as a good friend. She was standing at the base of the balcony stairs, about to exit the sanctuary with her three charges. Her husband and younger son must have left to warm up the car although the weather was due to turn unseasonably mild later in the day.
Cassie paused a moment to catch her breath. It had not been easy, encumbered with choir robe and music, to traverse the length of the sanctuary through the large crowd in time to get to them. Apparently, Josh had dropped something on the stairs, however, which obstructed the balcony exit. Catching her eye, her elder son gave a sideways grin as he moved to bring the car around before Scott returned from the Sunbeam Class with Alice.
“I was wondering if you could spare the boys for a short while. I need their help and I'll be glad to drop them off at the country club, say in thirty minutes or so? And here's Barry, too. Quite a change from services at your synagogue, I would imagine.”
“Yes,” Kenny chimed in. “We were so impressed with Mrs. Anthony's world religions lesson the other day that we wanted to do some more research. We went to erv shabbat with the Sterns on Friday night.”
“We think the exchange will be culturally enriching,” Barry added.
Cassie's eyes narrowed as she beheld the three of them. The year was already half over. She was not sure just how many reforms she could attempt in the time remaining to her.
Kenny's mother was taking in the scene with quiet enjoyment. “We can certainly spare the boys for a little bit, although I believe they are riding with Mrs. Sandidge.”
Yeah, right! thought Cassie. Misdirection at its best. By the time their parents realized the boys had been 'left' at the church and returned to pick them up, the innocent little tykes might (or might not) have been able to affect the switch.
Keeping the fragile emotional state of the Sandidge family in mind, Cassie preferred to insert her more experienced hand into the proceedings. The church was almost empty. What she planned should not take too long, especially if Ivan and Mr. Gooding had cleared the crucial areas as requested.
Cassie and the three miscreants entered the silent sanctuary and went up behind the altar. She sat down on the piano bench and surveyed them with professional interest. Divide and conquer appeared to be the best plan of attack.
Turning to Mr. Cultural Enrichment, she said (through teeth that just avoided being clenched) “Go....get....the....jar.”
Barry started to say something when Cassie's mean look, which had been perfected over twenty years of teaching, hit him solidly between the eyes. He left, weaving a bit as he headed toward the now empty fellowship hall and its gaily decorated Christmas tree.
She turned toward the two remaining felons. Kenny was holding up tolerably well but Geoff looked so miserable she stemmed the torrent of reproach welling within her. They were only ten years old, after all.
She held the coin in the palm of her hand. Funny how much it resembled a tarnished quarter even though it came from half a world away. “I believe this is yours,” she said to Geoff.
The range of emotions that flew across his face brought tears to her eyes. He had been suffering so much these last four days. No wonder Kenny got the upper hand in chess. It was a miracle Geoff had been able to play at all. However, he hadn't been the only one who had been hurt – not by a long shot.
“I think I can pretty much figure out what happened, but please stop me if I get anything major wrong. The coin was put into the jar by mistake, and you three snuck in here during Wednesday dinner to try to get it back. Only the jar tilted off of the pedestal and broke?”
“It didn't make any noise, but when we tried to pick it up we found the bottom had come clean off, and the rest was in two big pieces,” Kenny was babbling in an attempt to explain all before she looked at him that way.
“I suppose it would have been expecting too much for you to just find someone and explain what had happened?” Cassie asked with commendable restraint.
Geoff spoke up, “I was afraid they would think I was a sissy, making a lot of fuss over a little coin and not wanting to share with the Kormanski's.”
Gee, kids were fragile. Sometimes Cassie forgot just how sensitive young boys could be. She had probably erred a lot even with her own two. Raising Alice was such a struggle. How often had she missed the telltale signs? Probably much too often. She dragged herself back to the present. Kenny was looking significantly relieved although Geoff could not as yet look her in the eyes.
Barry returned with the large scoutmaster's present, the box still as colorfully wrapped as it had been when they had placed it Friday in the storage closet 'for safe keeping'.
Cassie's scientific curiosity was aroused. She leaned forward.
“Let me see the bottom.”
Barry, who had in the interim recovered a good amount of his saing froid, proudly showed off the mechanism that allowed them to open the specially constructed box, cover the lone pickle jar on the closet shelf then close the bottom again with no one being any the wiser.
No, Cassie silently admitted, half a school year would not be time enough to deal fully with this bunch. Still, there were stop gap measures.
“So, where's the money?” She returned to the piano bench.
Geoff gave a nervous giggle, “You...you're sitting on it.”
She surveyed them with a jaundiced eye. Kenny and Geoff knew the Kormanskis better than Barry did. But even so. Her hands twitched convulsively. She was able to subdue them before she grabbed the boys' necks and shook them until their teeth rattled. Cassie arose and removed the top layer of music under the lid of the bench. There it all was in an untidy heap: coins, bills, checks.
“Give me the jar.” It was Barry who complied, reaching in his pocket to retrieve one of his father's handkerchiefs. He polished the container inside and out before handing it to her. CSI must be right on top of his favored TV programs list.
She used the handkerchief in turn, secretly annoyed with herself in forgetting this elementary precaution, while the boys replaced the missing booty. The jingling coins made quite a racket in the now silent church. Opening the door to the utility closet, they secreted the jar behind the mops and brooms that leaned in one dark corner. Upon gaining the safety of the old station wagon, Cassie was surprised to find she was holding her breath. The ensuing adrenalin rush as they turned the corner and headed to the country club caught her by surprise. Not for worlds would she acknowledge a fellow feeling with her merry band. She took her responsibilities seriously. Benevolent vengeance must somehow be wreaked or they might be tempted to soon again venture into dangerous waters.
Arriving at the club some five minutes later, she pulled into a convenient parking place and turned to the three boys in the back seat. Releasing Geoff, who scuttled inside with alacrity, she spoke softly.
“While this might have been just a jolly adventure for you two in aid of a good friend, the apparent theft hurt some very kind people and caused a great deal of trouble to a number of others, including already overburdened police investigators. I want you to think long and hard about that in the next few days. There may be something yet you can do to rectify at least part of the damage your little intrigue caused. I think I'll just go inside with you.”
“No,” as their faces became panic stricken, “I'm not going to tell your parents but only because of the trouble it would mean for Geoff and his family. I wouldn't count on this much indulgence in the future, if I were you,” she added as she saw a gleam return to Barry’s eyes.
She and two subdued young men walked under the portico of the mellow old building and into the large dining room where they were met by Kenny's parents. As the duo turned to make a dash toward the linen covered buffet table where Geoff was heaping his plate with roast beef and scalloped potatoes, Cassie's arms whipped out and enveloped their shoulders. Holding them firmly she smiled at the two adults.
“The boys and I were talking on the way over. They thought it would be a great idea if they volunteered to do something over the holidays at the police station.” Heartened by the noticeable wince she felt in their shoulders, she continued, “Perhaps they could put a new coat of paint on the break room. Quite a generous thought, isn't it?”
Kenneth Loren's eyes glittered as he contemplated his young son and heir. Meeting Cassie’s steady gaze, he took a deep breath then considered for a long moment before he replied.
“An excellent idea. Barry's father and I will take care of the details. No sense bothering you over the holidays.”
As the two scamps headed toward Geoff and food, Kenny's mother turned to their teacher. “You must get a great deal of satisfaction out of your job, Cassie.”
“Oh,” Cassie replied as she observed the retreating forms, “It has its moments.”
Monday morning found Sgt. West surveying a tall pickle jar sitting in the center of the pastor's neatly organized desk.
“Tell me again how you found it,” Jerry West turned a bemused gaze toward the older man.
“Jeremiah Gooding and Ivan Kormanski discovered this message when they returned from cleaning the church nursery after service yesterday. It was stuck in the handles of the double doors that lead from the main lobby to the narthex.” He held out a folded piece of paper.
The policeman read the message aloud, “Matthew 7:7”? Although he had been a faithful member of Pine Forest Baptist Church in northern Wood County since his birth, at the moment he could not bring the quotation to mind.
“'Seek and ye shall find.' Jeremiah Gooding recognized it right away. So they looked in the sanctuary one last time, at last locating the jar in a dark corner of the utility closet under the stairs.”
“We must have checked that area at least three times!”
“I know. There is no doubt it had to be placed in that location sometime after the last search on Friday.”
“And whoever placed it there had to have been inside the church after yesterday's service. The doors were locked?”
“Yes, at that time of day you could get out but not in. Jeremiah and Ivan worked together all morning. The church nursery was very busy. They left to clean it about the time the last few people were filing out. No one saw the note until they returned to the area about 12:30.”
Sgt. West looked again at the note. “Bold typeface but obviously computer generated. I suppose we could check it for prints, the jar also.”
Jonathan Edwards gave a gentle smile, “I really don't think that will be necessary, do you? The money appears to be all there. Whatever happened or whoever has been involved might be a mystery best left unsolved. There must be some good reason why it was returned in this fashion.”
Sgt. West gave the minister a considering glance. “If that's okay with you. It’s less trouble on our end. We're always snowed under at this time of year... and besides, there's always Luke 17:3.”
“Ah, yes. 'If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.' How very appropriate.”
Jerry West gave a wry grin, “We hear that one a lot in our line of work.”
Tuesday evening, the Reverend Edwards stopped Cassie as she headed down the corridor toward the choir room to prepare for Christmas Eve service.
“I saw the article in today's paper about the return of the jar. Everything should be back to normal now.” Cassie decided to get in the first shot.
Jonathan gave his gentle smile, “Yes, things are just fine. Better than fine actually: that front page article brought in lots of additional donations these past two days. It looks as though we should have no trouble financing the family's trip and initial housing expenses.”
He gave a thoughtful pause, “I don't think we'll add those contributions to the jar until after tonight's service. Can't have it too full, you know. Wouldn't want to discourage any last minute contributions.”
Cassie looked her pastor with considerable admiration. She seldom saw the eminently practical side of his persona.
“Well, I'd better be on my way. We have one piece we want to review, and it's getting late.”
As she turned to make her getaway, the minister added. “You know, it's a funny thing about that jar. Sgt. West and I decided fingerprinting was unnecessary. It was probably wiped clean anyway. Everyone knows about fingerprints these days. No, it was something I noticed after he had gone. That was a Vlasic pickle jar.”
“Yes, and yet I'm quite sure our church only purchases Mt. Olive ones.”
Details, details, details.
Cassie returned his steady gaze, “The Lord works in mysterious ways, Jonathan.”
“Indeed he does. Merry Christmas, Cassie. I hear you're having quite a big dinner tomorrow.”
“Bigger than originally planned. The Harris's daughter and her family are stuck in a blizzard at the Denver airport so Dr. and Mrs. Harris will be joining us as well. Oops, there's the music- I've got to go!” Cassie moved down the corridor with a ladylike walk that nearly resembled a gallop. Things were getting a bit too sticky for her complete comfort.
The Christmas Eve service was drawing to a close. Cassie picked up her candle and holder. She looked around the full sanctuary at the many people she had known for so long. Moving was part of a Navy family’s way of life. She had never been able to put down roots until she moved to this special place. It made Cassie all the more protective of everything she held dear.
She saw her two sons, Scott sitting close to Daria and Stefan; tall Josh and his lovely girlfriend Lori on Scott's other side. Her father and Alice had opted to stay at the house with Nancy Decatur to keep them company. Cassie looked towards the main sanctuary doors where Ivan and Jeremiah Gooding kept faithful watch, flanking the overflowing jar. No way they were going to let it out of their sight again. Jonathan was going to have quite a time wedging in all those additional donations, but she was confident he was up to the task.
A quick glance at the balcony showed the Loren and Sandidge families in their usual places. Scanning farther along the pew past faces both familiar and new, she noted one family in particular. A small boy of about seven or so was standing next to a lovely woman, radiant in her last trimester of pregnancy. Cassie's experienced eye determined the baby was probably a girl. A boy of about ten stood on his father's other side. They must live in the county as he did not attend Parkside School. She glanced up at the father, stolidly arrayed in dark suit and tie, and simply stared.
Catching her eye, Sgt. Jerry West gave her a deliberate wink. Rapidly returning her gaze to her immediate surroundings, Cassie stood up with her fellow choir members. Lighting her candle in turn, their voices intertwined on the moving Silent Night. One by one the candles were lit, row upon row and aisle upon aisle, filling the dim sanctuary with their glow of hope and peace. At its conclusion, the congregation filed out, murmuring Christmas greetings to their nearest neighbors.
Cassie left the choir robing room, pulling on her coat as she went. A cold front was winging its way eastwards, and late night sleet had been forecast. Already her thoughts were on tomorrow's large dinner and the way she would have to juggle roasting the large turkey, glazing the ham and preparing a plethora of side dishes in her two ancient ovens. How she would accomplish it remained a mystery to her, as did Alice's unprovoked assaults upon this year’s Christmas tree.
She flung open the outer door to the parking lot then came to an abrupt halt to avoid colliding with a group of people who stood entranced just outside the door. Their upturned faces were rapturous in the frosty air as huge snowflakes whispered out of an invisible night sky, gilding the waiting landscape with their silent magic.
“It'll never stick,” said one of the older members with regret.
“It doesn't have to,” Cassie replied, “it's perfect just the way it is.”
And it was.
Author: Susan McNeill Roberts, wife, mother, retired school teacher, and author, now lives in Summerton, S.C.